Humans are social creatures who need contact with others to survive and thrive. When teams are working remotely, feelings of isolation and disconnection can creep in. Good managers, in tandem with HR departments, need to be vigilant to ensure remote teams maintain their mental health and wellbeing. When people work remotely for extended periods, particularly if they’re socially isolated in other ways as well, their risk of suffering anxiety, low morale and even depression increases.
Dr Robyn Johns, a senior lecturer in human resource management and industrial relations in the Management discipline group at UTS Business School, says there’s a growing body of research linking lack of social interaction to depression. Therefore, says Dr Johns, it’s vital for remote-working teams to maintain good communication.
"Regular video or telephone calls to maintain human connection are particularly important. Having daily or at least weekly check-ins with staff provides an opportunity to listen to employees’ concerns and signpost them to further support – whether that’s with HR, through an employee assistance program or some other means.”- Dr Robyn Johns, senior lecturer in human resource management and industrial relations in the Management discipline group at UTS Business School
Business and life coach Kathryn Martens from Release Coaching agrees. “We enjoy working in teams because we are designed as social beings who get satisfaction from interpersonal interaction,” she says. “To put it simply, we need each other, not just for our technical skills and input to the project, but for connection.”
Dr Johns recommends teams schedule some “virtual social sessions”, such as online coffee breaks or remote shared activities, as a way of keeping staff motivated and helping them feel connected. Managers also need to “encourage a culture where everyone can be their true selves at work and feel able to admit when they're struggling”.
Inevitably, mental-health issues will crop up. Dr Johns recommends looking out for the following warning signs and red flags:
- Attendance problems (becoming uncontactable)
- Confused thoughts
- Difficulties following directions
- Increased anxiety
- Increased interpersonal conflict
- Lack of emotional control
- Social withdrawal
- Signs of intoxication or hangover
- Prolonged periods of sadness
If managers sense that all is not well, Dr Johns says it’s important to be proactive. “We can no longer dodge the conversation around mental health,” she says. “It may be a hard conversation to have, but it's crucial to everyone that it's discussed on a regular basis.”
HR departments also have a vital role to play in guiding employees towards appropriate channels for help and ensuring managers do not get in over their heads.
“Managers should remember that they are not counsellors and while they should show empathy by listening and providing support, they are not qualified to offer mental-health advice,” she says.
In general, HR and management should direct staff experiencing mental-health problems towards an employee assistance program (EAP) or services such as Lifeline or Beyond Blue.
“Where available, encourage the use of the employee assistance program. This allows employees to access professional support they need, when they need it,” says Dr Johns.